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DW.com: In Sudan, Russia's Africa strategy advances another step

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Sunday, 16 June 2024

16 June 2024

Sudan and Russia have reportedly agreed to establish a Russian navy base near Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. The West does not appear to have a response to this move, which will bolster Moscow's military presence in Africa.

 
 A picture showing a ship and port infrastructure in Port Sudan
Port Sudan may soon see more Russian naval officers coming and goingImage: AFP/Getty Images

Malik Agar, the deputy chairman of the army-dominated Sudanese Transitional Sovereignty Council, left no doubt about his country's position in comments made in June on the sidelines of the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg. 

Sudan is indeed interested in reviving an agreement on building a Russian navy hub on the Red Sea, Agar said, according to Sudanese daily Sudan Tribune.

Sudan and Russia have been discussing such an agreement for years. According to a report from the Institute for the Study of War

, as far back as 2017, Sudan's then-president Omar al-Bashir, and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached a deal on the construction of a Russian base with room for several hundred soldiers and four ships.

However, due to the political instability that then ensued in Sudan, its parliament was unable to ratify the contract. But discussions have recently resumed — apparently with more success.

In late May, the assistant commander-in-chief of the Sudanese army (SAF) Yasser al-Atta announced that Sudan and Russia would sign a number of military and economic agreements in the coming weeks.

Strategic course shift for Russia

Moscow's agreement with Sudan's state representatives indicates an important change of course. In the disastrous conflict that erupted last year between the Sudanese army and the rebel Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the Kremlin at first backed the RSF, particularly because the semi-state-run Wagner Group had previously clinched mining rights for Sudan's gold deposits with the group. Those rights are a steady source of foreign currency for Russia, as it labors under Western sanctions imposed following its 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

 Exposed terraces of a gold mine in Sudan glisten in the sun Exposed terraces of a gold mine in Sudan glisten in the sun
Gold is one of Sudan's major resourcesImage: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

The military situation in Sudan remains unclear, according to Hager Ali, a political scientist at Hamburg's German Institute for Global and Area Studies research center.

"But Russia now obviously wants to diversify its support in Sudan. What's more, Port Sudan is located in the area controlled by the SAF. If Russia wants a navy base there, it needs to talk with the SAF," she said.

It's uncertain what impact that would have on the ongoing conflict.

Russia pledges 'unrestricted qualitative military aid'

In exchange for being allowed to maintain a navy presence in Sudan, it appears Russia has pledged to provide military support to the SAF. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov promised the SAF "unrestricted qualitative military aid," according to the Institute for the Study of War.

Even in previous years, the Sudanese army would have liked to have fighter aircraft such as SU-30s and SU-35s, as well as air defense missiles such as the S-400 system from Russia, said political scientist Andreas Heinemann-Grüder from the Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies in the German city of Bonn.

 Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Sudanese acting foreign minister, Ali al-Sadiq, give a joint press conference  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Sudanese acting foreign minister, Ali al-Sadiq, give a joint press conference
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left) visited Sudan in February 2023Image: Marwan Ali/AP/picture alliance

"But up to now, the Russians have been skeptical about these wishes. We don't know whether they will now take a different tack, or what weapons Russia has offered Sudan in return for the navy base," Heinemann-Grüder told DW.

Russia holds rather good cards in the negotiations, according to Ali. "The longer the conflict lasts, the more weapons the SAF needs. That is particularly true of the Sudanese air force, which has to operate in remote regions as well. For that reason, they can very well use Russian weapons."

The same goes for diesel fuel, which has long been in short supply, according to Ali. "For a long while, fuel was imported by the Wagner militia via Chad," she said, adding that in future, Russia might be able to deliver it through its new navy base in Sudan.

Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War wrote that this base would be a logical continuation of Russia's military actions across the African continent. Owing to Russia's involvement in the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar Assad, the magazine reports that Russia already has a navy base in Tartus in western Syria that it uses to send logistical supplies to Africa, and particularly Libya, which is also in the grips of a civil war.

Libya, in turn, acts as a bridgehead for sending more support to countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

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"Sudan is another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of Russia's Africa strategy," explained Ali. The same went for the arms trade, and regarding other Russian involvement on the continent, especially further west. "Moscow is pursuing different interests: in the short-term, medium-term and long-term," she added.

How could this affect Europe?

These goals also have consequences in Europe, said Heinemann-Grüder. "The Russians use their power to exploit the chaos unfolding in various African countries — not just in Sudan. They also support other putschists, as in Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger. There, this cooperation with putschists does not lead to a stabilization but, on the contrary, to an escalation of the domestic conflicts," he said.

In the case of Sudan, he said he could not rule out mass movements of refugees toward Europe.

"That's why Europe could ask itself, for instance, whether development aid to countries controlled by putschists should not be dependent on certain conditions — for example, the condition that military cooperation with Russians might have consequences for development cooperation, or perhaps even for humanitarian cooperation," he added.

France has already done this, the expert explained.

"But overall," he said "I don't see any uniform Western stance in this regard."

This article was originally written in German.


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